Why Are Transitions So Difficult For My Child?

What is it about change that is so problematic for some children (and for us)?

The stories are familiar:

  • The child who can’t make it down the hallway in school without causing a disruption.
  • The child who has seemingly had a good day at school and then whines incessantly before dinnertime.
  • The bedtime routine that takes forever and is not enjoyable for anyone.
  • The child who does fine in the classroom for major subjects but falls apart in the lunchroom or during specials.
  • The child who acts out whenever there is a substitute teacher or a new babysitter.
  • Those nightmarish car rides that we have all experienced.


Why are these situations happening despite our best efforts? All of us do better when routines are structured and predictable, but some children are particularly sensitive to changes in routines, disruptions, or unexpected events.

  • Some children do not have the organization or planning skills essential to moving through a normal day smoothly and are taxed even more when faced with something new.
  • Some children don’t fully understand or remember routines and are acutely sensitive to anxiety, changes in mood or boredom.
  • Some children have problems with attention or language processing and miss details. Others have problems processing the whole picture and get stuck on partial pieces of information.
  • Sensory issues with personal space, noise, light and temperature are present that can make a child under or over responsive to environmental demands.
  • Developmental delays or chronic illness/conditions can make it difficult for some children to meet our expectations.
  • Situational stressors may be present that can compromise a child’s normally adequate coping mechanisms.

What are some solutions?

  • First, analyze the problem. What is the difficultly? Are any of the above issues a factor in a child’s adjustment to change?
  • Try to keep routines as predictable as possible and look at things from a child’s perspective. Manage the environment and anticipate problems. Transitions need more not less structure. Give appropriate information and answer questions.
  • Simplify language. Break down instructions. Double-check with your child to make sure he/she understands what is being asked and ask him/her to repeat instructions back. Utilize visual or tactile cues if necessary. If possible utilize a child’s interests and preferences to help ease adjustment.
  • Plan aloud and provide reassurance. Leave room for change and avoid rushing. A five, four, three, two, one transition reminder can be helpful.
  • Teach your child to ask for help when appropriate.
  • Prepare for change: if possible, discuss changes in advance and provide an overview or “mental practice time.” Most of us don’t like surprises.
  •  Keep an emergency kit in the car with small toys, a stuffed animal, books and activities. These kits can work wonders in a doctor’s office, during a car ride or in a restaurant.
  • Organize, organize, and organize!
  • Set up rituals for saying “Goodbye”. If necessary, change your own perspective; teach your child to approach the world with curiosity, humor and enthusiasm.

Emergency measures if you need even more help!

  • Present a “Change in Routine” card: Attention: _____________ will be changed on____ because_______. The new____________is___________.
  • Present an IOU if a routine is unexpectedly disrupted and something fun is missed.
  • Build in relaxation. Provide a safe time out, time away, or quiet corner.
  • If possible provide a few realistic choices or options when making a demand.
  • Teach calming strategies.


  • For the child who can’t make it down the hallway, provide a place at the beginning or end of the line right next to a staff member.
  • During dinner preparation, provide your child with some small tasks or interesting activities nearby.
  • Manage the environment before and at bedtime. Provide reassurance, stories, talk and snuggle time. Encourage and reward independence.
  • Provide more and not less structure at lunch, recess, and specials. Staff members need to talk to one another, share successful strategies, and provide preferential seating, reminders and cues.
  • Utilize a fun kit during a car ride.
  • For personal changes, anticipate problems and answer questions honestly.

Finally, share strategies and successes with others. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice or help. We have all been there; there is a universal quality to these issues. Be a model of problem solving and flexibility for your child.

1 reply

Comments are closed.